Last week, I read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which looks into the future and tries to imagine what would happen to our planet if humanity were to vanish. It doesn’t spend time thinking about how our adios would happen, although it presumes that we wouldn’t blow the planet up or burn it to a cinder, only that we would cease to belabor the place. I suppose that makes it a tree-huggin’, Al-Gore-supportin’ screed in some readers’ eyes—the affrontery of the idea that humanity (or Americans, or Republicans) might not rule this planet forever! But given that geologic time is measured in billions of years and Homo sapiens has been here only 200,000 years, it’s a safe bet—probably the only intelligent one—that the processes Weisman describes will begin to happen at some distant day.
Weisman says that even for all we’re doing to the planet, it won’t take very long for nature to reverse a lot of it—less than a hundred years in many cases. In fact, nature is so effective that a reader starts to wonder whether anything human will endure into the distant future. Weisman says that at its current rate of erosion, Mount Rushmore will be around for seven million years, which will give future explorers something to ponder. Some of our radioactive waste will remain deadly for hundreds of millions of years, which has led a group of thinkers to figure out how to create an understandable warning sign that will endure into distant geologic time.
And our radio waves are eternal. We’ve been blasting the universe with radio waves for nearly 100 years now, traveling outward from the source at the speed of light. Weisman notes that by 1955, the first episode of I Love Lucy passed the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Fifty years later, it was 300 trillion miles away from Earth. It will take until about 2450 before “the expanding sphere of radio waves bearing Lucy, Ricky, and their neighbors the Mertzes will emerge from the top and bottom of our galaxy and enter intergalactic space.” (The phenomenon is dramatized in clever/mindblowing fashion in the opening sequence of the 1997 movie Contact.) Eventually, the waves will become so weak that they’ll be swamped by background radiation from the Big Bang, but they will never vanish entirely.
The first time I was ever on the radio was in 1976. (The story of that show is mildly entertaining, and I’ll have to tell it sometime.) My first transmission is still out there somewhere, now 31 light years from Earth, which means Proxima Centauri has been eating its dust for a long time. It’s already blown past Sirius and Procyon (two-thirds of the Winter Triangle, one of the star configurations that’s easiest for me to spot), as well as Altair, Fomalhaut, and Vega. In a couple of years, it will reach Pollux—and there’s reportedly a planet circling Pollux, so there could be someone listening out there.
Now, how might a beacon in the universe such as myself bring this lofty subject back to this blog’s customary Earthbound plane? With another song that sounds like October to me. Twenty-five years ago this month, erstwhile punk-rocker Joe Jackson classed up his act, and radio stations everywhere, with “Steppin’ Out,” one of the most underrated singles of all time. Last week, writing about Chicago, I mentioned how thrilling their early 70s singles could be. “Thrilling” is exactly the right adjective for “Steppin’ Out,” once you’ve heard it for the first time. As soon as you identify that drum-and-bass intro, you start anticipating the glorious crash of those big piano chords, and the way Jackson makes the record swing like little else on the Top 40 back then, or ever. (Ignore the cowbell noises for the first couple of seconds of the download; on the Night and Day album, “Steppin’ Out” segues out of the preceding cut.)
The first radio waves that carried “Steppin’ Out” are getting to Fomalhaut and Vega right about now, and whatever’s out there is diggin’ it.
Notable: Best wishes to our pal Whiteray at Echoes in the Wind, who married his Texas Gal on Friday. All of of your regular readers and Internet pals are out here tapping our wine glasses, so the two of you best get busy. And also, my Lynyrd Skynyrd post on the 20th made the Top 100 at WordPress. That’s the second time we’ve made the list, and I appreciate the extra eyeballs.